Building it yourself can help you consume less and live more.
IN 2008, Richard Telford bought a small block of land in Seymour, an hour north of Melbourne.
He dismantled the run-down weatherboard bungalow, and carefully stored the materials for reuse. Over the course of a year, the former white-collar worker laboured full-time to build a new home for his young family.
The 100–square metre, three-bedroom home is largely self-reliant in water and energy. With two toddlers, he and his partner Kunie Yoshimoto use about one-eighth the electricity of an average home.
“People have become detached from where and how they live,” Mr Telford says. “The owner-building process really connected us with what’s involved in a house – the effort to create it and the energy and water we consume. It’s like growing your own food: the more involved you are, the greater appreciation you have for the quality.”
It also gave him control over the way materials were used and re-used.
“In a typical house, several skips go to landfill. We threw almost nothing away. We used things that would be considered waste, and transformed them into something quite beautiful,” he says.
He didn’t do it alone. Mr Telford teamed up with Peter Lockyer, an architect and builder who makes a living helping owner-builders with the nuts and bolts of designing and constructing a dwelling.
The main environmental benefit of doing it yourself, Mr Lockyer says, comes down to size. “Their homes tend to be smaller. You assess your needs more clearly – you don’t build a separate theatre or extra living rooms you’ll never use.”
Over three decades, he’s worked on about 100 passive solar homes of this kind. He remains enthralled by the creativity that emerges when people, with no special skills or experience, work slowly and steadily on something they care about.
“I’m still excited by the hands-on process of people creating their own space,” he says. “Building can be fun. It’s an enriching part of life, not just a transaction to get a product. They’re creating more than a backdrop for a plasma screen.”
He offers a warning too: projects are more likely to take years than months, and that can be stressful for relationships. Also, many banks are cautious in offering loans to owner-builders.
His advice is to make sure you’ve got someone on your side – a registered builder – who can help you avoid the bumps. The Building Commission provides links to tips, training and a useful information kit (PDF), which details your obligations and the required applications.
For Mr Telford, becoming an owner-builder was about choosing a way of life. The land cost $54,000 and the budget for the new house was just $100,000. With the help of the generous government grants then available, the couple have already paid off their mortgage. They have an abundant food garden, very few costs, and a lot of freedom to decide how they’ll spend their time.
Before all this, Mr Telford worked in advertising. Now, he does his own publishing, including a permaculture calendar, and writes about Abdallah House on his blog. “I’m using those skills to promote things I believe in,” he explains.
“I wanted to show people that you can do it without getting in debt for the rest of your life.”